Managing Intrusive Thoughts to Avoid Addiction Relapse. The iconic 20th-century artist, Pablo Picasso, once famously said, “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” This is also true if we are to have success in recovery. We must have a recovery plan and we must act upon it. In doing so, we can better avoid intrusive thoughts or addictive thinking patterns and relapse, or at least be better prepared for when they manifest and threaten our recovery.
Understanding the Nature of Intrusive Thoughts
According to an article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, “Intrusive thoughts have been defined as unwelcome repetitive thoughts, images, or impulses.” Also, “In the last decades, clinical psychologists have empirically investigated the role of unwanted, intrusive thoughts in pathologies, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.” These investigations have also focused on intrusive thoughts associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and other types of substance use disorders (SUD).
A big part of intrusive thoughts has to do with what is referred to in 12-Step recovery as “the mental obsession.” The mental obsession is a representation of the type of intrusive thoughts that particularly affect individuals struggling with SUD. In active addiction, these are intrusive thoughts like:
- “What if I run out of alcohol or substances?”
- “Where can I get my next drink or drug?”
- “What can I do to make sure that no one interrupts the way I like to use substances?”
These addictive thinking patterns don’t just affect those in active addiction. They affect people in recovery, too. This includes those that are newcomers and those that have many years of sobriety. In active recovery, these types of intrusive thoughts look more like, “I wonder if I can drink ‘normal’ again? I wonder if there are any new types of alcohol or substances out there. Can I keep this up? What if I relapse?” These are the types of intrusive thoughts that can be detrimental to someone in recovery, which is why better understanding intrusive thoughts and relapse is critical.
Who Is Most Susceptible to Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can affect anyone. According to the aforementioned article, “Healthy individuals [also] experience intrusive thoughts that are comparable to clinical obsessions in form and content.” The difference is that these intrusive thoughts are manageable and dissipate before they can become detrimental. This is not true for people in active addiction and people in recovery.
Those who struggle with issues of addiction and mental illness are much more susceptible to addictive thinking patterns. However, there are also subcategories of these illnesses that are even more susceptible. Generally, people who struggle with anxiety disorders – such as social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder – tend to be more susceptible. This is due to the uncomfortable internal nature of these disorders, as well as the fear of being judged.
Also, while anyone who struggles with addiction is susceptible to intrusive thoughts, those who are in long-term recovery and have stopped focusing on the actions that need to be kept to avoid relapse are susceptible. As they often say at the end of 12-Step meetings, “It works, if you work it, so work it, you’re worth it.” Once this work stops, the potential for intrusive thoughts and relapse becomes exponentially more likely.
When Are Intrusive Thoughts and Relapse Triggers Most Likely to Pop Up?
There are three words that many people in recovery may be familiar with. These words are “people, places, and things.” Now, why are these words familiar? Because, people, places, and things are most likely to be triggering to an individual in recovery.
While intrusive thoughts can pop up when least expected, there are also ways to mitigate their potential. This goes back to those three words. Intrusive thoughts are most likely to appear when triggering events happen. These may be not letting go of resentment toward a particular individual, going to a place where we once used to drink or do substances, or even seeing a brand of alcohol that we once used to prefer.
Moreover, these triggers don’t automatically have to mean intrusive thoughts and relapse. The key is to have a plan when intrusive thoughts pop up to avoid relapse. This includes staying active in whatever form of recovery we participate in, such as 12-Step or Dharma recovery, keeping an active sober network, and being open and honest with close family members, and therapists when addictive thinking patterns pop up.